This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

What we mean when we say we want Christian unity

I’ve been reading Andy Crouch’s Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power for about four months now and I’m barely a third of the way through it. Not because it’s bad! Quite the contrary: it’s one of those books that I have to set down every page or two because I need to think about the point being made.

peter-and-paul-icon-from-patmosThat, and I bought it on Kindle, and I’ve come to realize that I hate reading e-books. So Playing God comes out only when I forget to bring another option, and even then I move forward in fits and starts.

But this weekend’s spurt of reading has been especially helpful. Not for what it says about the redemption of power, but for the multi-layered metaphor of Christian unity that it provides.

Crouch writes of encountering a famous icon in the Monastery of St. John on the Greek island of Patmos. Already unusual because of its round shape, this icon shows not one saint, but two: Peter and Paul.

And they were embracing. Indeed, they were nearly kissing; their faces were pressed up against one another in an intimate greeting, presumably something like the “holy kiss” that Paul refers to in his letters. The traditional circular halos behind their heads overlapped, forming a kind of heart shape. The icon was a series of symmetries from top to bottom — their halos, their hands on one another’s shoulders and forearms, their overlapping garments of deep green, crimson, blue and gold all combining in a moment of balanced but dynamic harmony (p. 94).

Crouch goes on to explain that a Greek scholar taught him that the icon depicts Peter and Paul’s first meeting (remember this detail) and that it’s meant to symbolize Synaspismos. Not the radical-left Greek political movement of recent vintage, but the “ancient battle practice of advancing with shields overlapping one another, just as the saints overlap in this moment of greeting. It is a word for shared strength, comradeship and partnership — the sharing of power that enabled both Peter and Paul to fulfill their vocations as ambassadors of the gospel across the Roman Empire.”

Perhaps it’s just a sign that I’m thinking (and writing) too much about this topic, but it struck me as an important metaphor for what’s at risk in the ongoing controversy over the future of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

No doubt Scot McKnight is right to ask if there’s anything more to that consortium than shared concerns that are “pragmatic, practical and strategic,” rather than the deeper theological, confessional, sacramental or other ties that bind together other kinds of Christian groups. But as a symbol of “shared strength, comradeship and partnership” for the sake of advancing the Gospel through higher education, the Peter and Paul icon reminds me that I’m not pursuing this mission by myself, but as a member of what John Hawthorne calls a “Christian Academic Community.” And of communities of communities like the CCCU and the Lilly Network.

So far, so good. But Crouch peels back another layer of meaning from the icon:

. . . the longer I looked at the icon the more I suspected that Peter and Paul’s feelings about this meeting [again: it’s their first] were, well, complicated. The expression on each of their faces is somber, even a bit suspicious. Indeed, as they embrace they are quite conspicuously not looking one another in the eyes the way I do when I meet a long-lost friend; they gaze across and out of the frame of the icon, each looking at something beyond the other. These are not old friends reunited after a long journey. They are, in fact, very recent enemies meeting shortly after Paul’s conversion from persecutor of the church to energetic defender of the Way of Jesus.

And this, too, echoes the history of the CCCU. At some point during the birthing of the CCCU in the mid-1970s, I can imagine Eastern Mennonite College (now University) in Harrisonburg, Va., president Myron Augsburger warily embracing new friends who represented the same magisterial Protestant traditions that had once persecuted his Anabaptist forebears. (By the way, Augsburger went on to serve as CCCU president from 1988 to 1994.)

Then Crouch notes that even after they moved past their first awkward meeting, Peter and Paul “would soon become rivals of sorts, divided at least for a time on some of the most basic questions facing the early church, leading to the public dispute Paul reports in Galatians” (Gal. 2:11-14). So I can imagine the presidents of all those Southern Baptist schools that joined the CCCU in the last 25 years tentatively engaging in Synaspismos with counterparts whose schools endorsed pedobaptism or speaking in tongues.

So as we face the potential of such friendships coming to an end over still another conflict in biblical interpretation, let’s understand what we mean by Christian unity, as it’s symbolized by the Peter and Paul icon. As the commentary on the Google Cultural Institute page for the Patmos monastery explains, the icon symbolizes the ecumenical amity prayed for in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy for the feast of the two apostles (“Entreat the Master of all / to grant peace to the world, / and to our souls great mercy!”). But for Crouch, the unity of the Synaspismos is a complicated kind of peace:

. . . the Synaspismos icon has become for me a picture of fellowship, partnership and community, and also of difference, distance and difficulty. Ultimately they are all part of the same thing. It is perhaps the best portrayal I have seen of the reality that love is as much an act of the will as an impulse of the heart. In the Synaspismos we witness two strong leaders willing to submit to one another — to embrace the gifts the other brings and to join together, shields overlapping, in a shared mission (p. 96).

When Paul urged the church at Philippi to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phi 2:2), he wasn’t mouthing pious platitudes; he was calling for hard work. Likewise, the church at Ephesus would need to “[make] every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). From his own experience, Paul understood that Christian unity brings together strong-willed people who carry relational baggage and don’t always agree even on important doctrines.

That Peter, knowing his own shortcomings, can exhort his readers to “have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind” leads us to Crouch’s final point (1 Peter 3:8). Whatever unity Christians preserve in this life is not entirely of our making, and not at all for our glory. Crouch concludes:

The icon is all about Peter and Paul, and it is also all about something much greater than Peter and Paul. Precisely because of their differences, both the differences we see portrayed and the differences we know about from the New Testament, the icon invites us to ponder what could bring two men together in this way. . . .

Icons are not meant primarily to be looked at; they are meant to be looked through . . . [The Synaspismos’] golden background reminds us of an incomparably greater reality that shimmers behind the somewhat flattened and stylized figures in the foreground.

So among other things, the phenomenon of different Christian colleges and universities working together despite their differences is an icon — in part because of those differences. Their Synaspismos invites a watching world to ponder, “What could bring Goshen [College in Indiana] and Bethel [University in St. Paul, Minn.] together in this way?”

In this sense, our flawed unity serves “to draw us not into contemplation, let alone worship of the icon itself or the persons it depicts, but to invite us into a relationship with the One who drew Peter and Paul together, held them in fellowship in spite of themselves, and through them began to build one holy, catholic and apostolic church” (Playing God, p. 96).

Chris Gehrz is a professor of history and chair of the department of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. He lives with his wife and two children in Roseville, and attends Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton. This first appeared on his blog, The Pietist Schoolman.

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